Here’s why the coronavirus economic shutdown isn’t enough to stop climate change

Airlines are facing a dramatic drop in air traffic—and emissions—because of coronavirus related travel restrictions.
Airlines are facing a dramatic drop in air traffic—and emissions—because of coronavirus related travel restrictions.
Image: AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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The economic shutdown associated with coronavirus has taken a huge bite out of global greenhouse gas emissions. According to a recent analysis from the UK-based research outfit Carbon Brief, it could add up to the largest one-year drop in emissions in history: 2,000 metric tonnes of CO2, equal to about 5.5% of the planet’s 2019 carbon footprint. Before coronavirus, global emissions were expected to increase at least 1% this year.

That’s an astounding reversal. But it reveals a stark reality: Even sustained emissions reductions on this scale wouldn’t be enough to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the goal set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement. To make that possible, emissions need to drop 7.6% every year this decade, according to the UN.

So how is it possible that everything we’re living through—all the shuttered factories and construction sites, grounded airplanes, parked cars, falling electricity use, vanishing oil demand, and more—isn’t enough to get us on track? In the short term, it actually is: Carbon Brief found that during the peak of its shutdown, China’s emissions dropped 25%; in April, India’s may fall by 30%. But the problem is that, assuming total shutdown conditions relax in the next month or two, emissions are likely to jump right back to business as usual, said Simon Evans, a biochemist and Carbon Brief’s deputy editor.

“The current situation is a terrible model for getting on track for 1.5C,” he said. “Fundamentally nothing has changed. Once people get back in their cars, it’s the same cars. We just hit pause, but reaching any climate goal requires structural shifts.”

Scientists have devised dozens of different pathways for reaching the 1.5C goal, different combinations of strategies carried out over different periods of time between now and 2050, each with its own pros and cons. These are explored in detail in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 special report on 1.5C, which painted a fairly grim picture of our odds of reaching that goal. The San Francisco-based nonprofit Drawdown Project also has a useful guide. But they all boil down to a few key steps to eliminate our use of fossil fuels:

  • Make the electric grid work on 100% renewable energy.
  • Make cars and everything else that consumes fossil fuels run on electricity instead—and use less of it.
  • Deploy high-tech fixes for things that are hard to run on electricity with current technology, like airplanes, and to remove CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere.
  • Reduce emissions from agriculture by using resources, including land, more efficiently.

It’s clear that travel restrictions and social distancing don’t do much to advance those goals; even if they did, Evans said, there are few climate activists who think making millions of people suffer extreme economic and medical hardship is the best way forward. If anything, the shutdown has been detrimental to the clean energy industry. And depending on what kind of stimulus measures governments put in place after the pandemic, emissions could grow even faster than before.